A Guide to Big Bend National Park
Greg Henington, a 26-year area resident, well remembers a first date at Big Bend more than two decades ago, to an overlook point called Sotol Vista. He drove up, opened a bottle of wine at a picnic table, and watched the sun set over the canyon. The date sparked an enduring partnership: He and his now-wife Valynda co-own local tour company Far Flung Outdoor Center, and she still talks about that date to this day. Sotol Vista remains one of his favorite spots in the park, but he walked us through a few others.
Big Bend National Park in Texas is larger than Joshua Tree or Yosemite, boasting more than 800,000 acres, but it gets only a fraction of the visitors those “celebrity” parks snag—fewer than 400,000 annually compared to Joshua Tree’s 2 million and Yosemite’s 4 million. “It’s not an easy one to get to,” admits Henington. "You kinda got to work at it.”
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Given the relative scarcity of humanity here, this is a great place to come if you truly want to unplug. And there are plenty of fun things to do in Big Bend National Park to keep you entertained: mountain biking, hiking, horseback-riding, canoeing down the Rio Grande—even floating right on over to Mexico for lunch.
When you’re planning a trip, keep in mind that spring (Henington calls this February until Memorial Day) and fall (October 1st until the end of the year) are the most popular times to come here, and that July and August are scorching hot.
“The seasons here are not as dramatic,” he points out, so February might bring with it blooming flowers. But even these busy seasons aren’t that crazy, he reports. “You could double the visitation of Big Bend and still not see a lot of people.” Just avoid spring break or school vacations in March. And if “you’re a desert rat and you like the heat,” says Henington, come on down in the summer. “For those who are from Texas or the South, well—heat’s heat!”
Whenever you decide to visit, remember to set aside time to get outside at night. “Big Bend is well-known for its night sky,” says Henington, so star gazers should make time to spend at least one night in the canyon: The lack of light pollution makes the Milky Way extra-stunning.
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Among the other things to love about this part of the world is that adventure-seekers can canoe right from one country into another: The Rio Grande will take you right into Mexico. Typically, says Henington, no one will give you a hard time. But don't forget your passport. When you’re coming back from Mexico, he warns, you have to declare yourself and your belongings at an American port of entry.
One popular Mexican destination is Boquillas del Carmen, a small village with restaurants that doubles as a port of entry. “It’s very laid-back,” reports Henington, and you can “have a beer and some food, walk around, and sight-see. It’s a really neat little experience.” Although he says “we haven’t had the safety problems some places have had,” it’s a good idea to check caveats from the National Parks Service about visiting a border area.
Hiking and rafting are big among tourists, but rock-climbing is not: By and large, “the rock is very crumbly,” warns Henington, and therefore less safe. If you like to bike, Henington calls this “a mountain bike mecca.” There are countless mountain bike trails, particularly in the state park abutting the national park. If you prefer to walk, check out the lost mine trail and the window trail, “two very popular hikes for first-timers.” The former rewards you with a “spectacular” view, says Henington, and the latter ends at a waterfall.
“Don’t try to cram in too much during your stay,” Henington warns. He sees plenty of visitors coming and spending entire days in their cars because they want to see everything—Fort Davis in addition to Big Bend—in just a few days. Instead, slow down and take your time. Check out the clutch of solid local restaurants (he likes the Mexican at Rio Bravo and La Kiva, an underground bar) and consider “taking your watch off and leaving your cell phone in the car.”
Book in advance, prepare to relax, and look up. This is a knockout part of the country.